Yosemite in the Winter and Fall: How to Get To the Park and Plan Your Visit

November 3, 2020 /
Yosemite in winter

Warning: Due to COVID 19 some information in this article (e.g. operating hours) may not be up-to-date.

Yosemite Park is one of the most beautiful and most visited national parks in America, but if you want to go there during the winter and fall, organizing a trip will not be easy at all, because snow and bad weather may cause some entrances and roads inside the park are closed.

It is no wonder then that the two most frequently asked questions we receive about the park from our readers are: is it worth including the park in your itinerary during the low season? How do you recommend to visit Yosemite in winter and fall?

Road Closures and Accessibility

Yosemite national park winterIn detail, it is useful to understand the state of the roads that affect the park area, so that you can take note of those that should be avoided regardless.

  • Tioga Road: First and foremost, those coming from the east will enter Yosemite by means of Tioga Road. It runs from Tuolumne Grove to the Tioga Pass Entrance Station and is closed to traffic from November until the end of May, possibly until June. The scenic road offers breathtaking views but it becomes inaccessible due to the snow;
  • Glacier Point Road: This road is also closed to traffic from November to June due to snow. However, the first five miles of the road are open for skiers going to Badger Pass. In any case, please keep in mind that it is not possible to reach the beautiful Glacier Point of view during the time of year when Glacier Point Road is closed;
  • Mariposa Grove Road: Finally, this road is also closed for safety reasons from November-December until April. It is closed from the South Entrance (which remains open in order to access Wawona Road and drive to Yosemite Village), but you can park your car there and continue on foot, or on cross-country skis. Here’s an article on what to do in Mariposa Grove.

What Options Are Left? How Can I Access Yosemite Park?

yosemite winter road closuresThe closure of the Tioga Road (and consequently the Tioga Pass) makes it impossible to enter Yosemite from the east and to travel from one end to the other until most of the spring season, however the other entrances to the park remain open all year round and the park is therefore accessible from the west, south and north. Here are all the park entrances:

  • West Gate: From the town of Mariposa (Arch Rock Entrance)
  • North Gate: From Groveland
  • South Gate: From Oakhurst
  • East Gate: From Lee Vining (Tioga Pass)

How Do I Get to the Park from the East?

As you may have guessed, the closure of Tioga Road is a headache for those traveling from the east who want to enjoy the winter landscapes of Yosemite Park (and in the next paragraph we’ll tell you if it’s worth it). So here are a number of alternative routes to get to the park, so you can figure out how much time you will need.

  • If you’re coming from Bodie or Lee Vining, near the magnificent Mono Lake, in order to circumvent Tioga Road you will have to make a big detour from the north, travelling on the US395 towards Minden (Nevada) for about 90 miles, then take Highway 757 West, towards Highway 206 South, then Highway 207 North and finally the US 50 West, for a total of about 400 miles. Unfortunately, you will not be able to pass through California’s SR 4 E and SR 108 (roads that would allow you to shorten the distance traveled), because the mountain passes (Sonora, Ebbetts, Monitor…) on those roads are closed during the winter, just like the Tioga Road.
  • When coming from Death Valley, you’ll need to detour south, taking Highway 190 to US 395 South, and then continue to Highway 14 South towards Mojave. From Mojave you will follow to Bakersfield and then on to Fresno. From Fresno, finally, follow Highway 41 North to the entrance to Yosemite National Park. The route covers a significant distance of 450 miles, and to make it easier for you to organize your trip we have published the article “Death Valley to Sequoia National Park“, which covers almost the entire route (only the stretch from Fresno to Yosemite is missing, but that is the easiest part);
  • If you leave from Las Vegas, head towards Barstow (it’s about 150 miles), and then take Highway 58 West to Bakersfield. From Bakersfield, the road is the same as the previous route described in the previous point. The total distance of this route is 495 miles;
  • Finally, if you want to reach Yosemite Park from the north, precisely from Lake Tahoe (Rhine), you have to head towards Sacramento (I-80 or I-50 West), then take Highway 99 towards Highway 120 (towards Manteca) or Highway 140 East (towards Merced). The journey is approximately 315 miles. While you’re there, you may also decide to visit the area, so take a look at our article What to do in Lake Tahoe.

Yosemite or Sequoia? How Do I Choose between the Two?

If you are planning a West Coast road trip that also includes the parks of Arizona, Utah and Nevada, you are surely asking yourself this question: if I start from San Francisco and have a limited number of days, should I visit Yosemite if the Tioga Road is closed? Perhaps you should bypass the Sierra Nevada from the south (see previous paragraph) and then visit the more convenient Sequoia National Park instead of Yosemite. Did you read our answer to this important question in the article Yosemite vs Sequoia National Park? I suggest you check it out to get an idea!

Why Should I Visit Yosemite in the Winter?

visit yosemite in winterSo winter seems to present the most challenges for those who want to visit Yosemite National Park. Not only can it be difficult to reach Yosemite from the east, but it is also known to have harsh weather conditions and constant snow, which is no small obstacle for those who want to visit the park and do not like skiing.

Snow chains: how to do it?
Remember that the use of snow chains is mandatory, even if your rental car has all seasons tires. The problem is that usually rental companies do not provide snow chains, so you will have to rent or buy them on your own. The latter should definitely be considered. On the one hand it can be annoying to have to leave them behind in order not to weigh down the suitcase, you have to take into account that renting them has a cost sometimes equal or higher than purchasing the snow chains and requires you to go return them, which can be a considerable inconvenience.

So, let’s see why the park may be worth a visit in winter.

Trails and Routes

yosemite winter lodgingOne of the most popular destinations in winter is undoubtedly the aforementioned Badger Pass, around which you can follow many winter ski fall lines and walking trails. Trails can also be found around Crane Flat and Mariposa Grove, but remember that the roads are not open. For the more daring athletes, the route from Yosemite Valley to Tuolumne Meadows via the Snow Creek Trail is recommended, but you will need suitable equipment and camping gear.

Shuttle Bus Tour

how to access yosemite in winterThose who want to enjoy a relaxing visit to the park can rely on the free shuttle service, which makes stops near panoramic viewpoints and accommodation. There are a total of 2 shuttles: Yosemite Valley Shuttle and El Capitan Shuttle. Of the two, however, only the first is active all year round, while the second is out of service from the beginning of October to mid-June.

Yosemite Winter Lodging

Camping

To camp you need the wilderness permit, which can be obtained at Big Oak Flat Information Station, Yosemite Valley Visitor Center, Badger Pass Ranger Station, Wawona Visitor Center, or Hetch Hetchy Entrance Station. You will be provided with camping guidelines, pay close attention to restrictions and regulations so that you respect nature and not be a danger to yourself and others during your stay.

Hut

If you don’t feel like sleeping in a tent surrounded by snow, from December to March you can take advantage of the Ostrander Ski Hut, a beautiful hut located at 8500 feet above sea level, 10 miles from Badger Pass. However, we recommend booking in advance, as, like any hut, there are only a few beds available. Reservations are made by lottery on this website.

Hotel

To find accommodations in or around the park I suggest you to have a look at our guide on lodging in Yosemite National Park.

In conclusion…

To avoid any nasty surprises, always pay attention the park’s official website, where weather conditions and road closures are constantly updated.

Bernardo Pacini
Bernardo Pacini

I am an editor and copywriter and have published some poetry. Besides traveling, my interests include literature, experimental music and good food

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